What to wear when hiking in New Zealand (north vs south)

New Zealand is the ultimate hiking destination if you ask me. With a temperate climate, expansive landscapes with enough diversity to appeal to all kind of hikers, the country is truly a once in a lifetime hiking adventure.

Whether you want to experience the coastal walks of the North Island or the beautiful rainforests of the South Island, New Zealand offers you plenty of opportunities to be one with nature.

But because the country lies in different climate zones, it can be difficult to decide on one set of clothes for all of the walking trails that span its diverse landscape.

When hiking in New Zealand you need durable hiking boots or approach shoes, socks, preferable from merino wool, a hat or beanie, and a three-layer clothing system protecting for rain and moist weather. Temperature goes as low as -10 C in winters, and summers usually rice to no more than 23 – 28 degrees Celsius.


If you’ve never tried hiking, or as New Zealanders say, tramping, before in the country, then you might not know what to wear exactly. Bring the wrong jacket and you’ll end up freezing at your South Island tramping adventures in the Fall or sweating like a pig on your coastal walk in the North Island.

The key to having an enjoyable and unforgettable tramping experience in New Zealand is knowing the areas you’re planning to hike, as well as the season.

For your tramping adventure in New Zealand, this guide will teach you what to wear and what to avoid.


The climate

Before we begin discussing the seasons in New Zealand and what you should be wearing on a hike, let’s first discuss the very basics of what to wear on a hiking adventure in the country.

New Zealand has a temperate maritime climate, and this means the country rarely experiences extreme weather conditions. With that said, all the walking trails and National Parks are open all-year-round, which means tramping in New Zealand is an all-year-round adventure. Though the country rarely experiences extreme weather, there are days where you can experience all four seasons in one day, which translates to a climate that’s unpredictable. The key to a successful hiking adventure in New Zealand is preparation, and this means being prepared with what to wear, and what clothes to bring with you on your hike.

It is important to note that there are two main islands in New Zealand, with the North Island having a subtropical climate, while the South Island experiences a more temperate and cool climate. Therefore, what you’re wearing on your tramping adventure in North Island may not be so ideal to wear in the South Island.


The basics of hiking wear in New Zealand

So what do you wear as you traverse volcanic craters, lush rainforests, coastal walks, wetlands, or rich valleys in New Zealand? Well, the answer is not that simple. In this guide, we need to start with the basics.


* Shoes

What kinds of shoes should you wear? Sneakers or sandals won’t do. A good, reliable, and durable pair of hiking boots or approach shoes are the most recommended.

This must be the first and biggest decision you make when you plan on what to wear for your tramping adventure. Choose the wrong pair of shoes and you’ll end up with blisters, foot cramps, leg fatigue, and other mishaps on the trails.

So what do you need? Hiking boots are great for rugged hiking conditions, which characterize most of the conditions in New Zealand’s walking trails. They also provide proper ankle support when you’re walking on boggy surfaces, as well as slippery slopes.

Approach shoes, on the other hand, are a comfortable option for trails that are paved and well-maintained. They’re light and more comfortable, making them a great option for half-day or full-day hikes.

If the Milford, Kepler, or Tongariro trails are part of your itinerary, then approach shoes are most ideal for these walks since they are some of the most well-maintained trails in the country.


* Socks

With a great pair of hiking boots or approach shoes, must come with it a great pair of socks. The only material you need for hiking socks is wool, specifically merino wool.

Wool is hard-wearing and protects your feet, which is essential when you’re walking for hours and hours for several days. Wool is a natural fiber that’s breathable, which means it allows for air and vapor to pass through, preventing your feet from becoming moist even when you sweat.

Wool can prevent blisters, prevent fungal spores, as well as keeps your feet warm in cold temperatures, and cool in warm temperatures. making them versatile. Wool is also naturally odor-resistant, which is perfect when your feet are sweating all day.

While you can wear regular wool socks, there are products that are designed to be hiking socks. These are designed to protect your feet with cushioning, as well as provide moisture-wicking abilities for comfort and dryness. Socks that are specially designed for hiking also prevent bunching, preventing uncomfortable pressure points,

When choosing the height of your wool socks, it must go beyond the height of the hiking boots. The socks’ height must be taller so they don’t ride down into your boots and causing discomfort and blisters.


* Hats

A hat can protect your head from the heat of the sun in the summer season, while a wool beanie can protect your head and ears from the cold during winter or fall. A hat can also protect your head from rain, making it an essential accessory that’s lightweight while also offering plenty of protection from the elements.


* Gloves

For fall and winter, wool gloves are essential to keep warm during the colder seasons.

Once you are back at your camper, you’d might need to dry some wet clothes in your camper. I have some ideas for you here. Take a look…


Clothing: The three-layer system

Now that we’ve discussed the basic accessories you will need for your complete hiking outfit, let’s now proceed to the basic clothing you will need to wear on your tramping adventure in New Zealand.

The Three-Layer System is a simple and highly effective way of dressing for any hiking outing. Whether it’s a day trial, a half-day trail, or a multi-day trail, this system will give you everything you need for a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable tramping adventure.

The layering system can be tweaked, changed, and tailored to suit all kinds of conditions, no matter what season of the year. It involves a series of layers where each layer serves a different purpose, allowing you to remove one or two, depending on the climate and temperature of the environment you’re exploring.

The three-layer system involves the Base Layer, the Mid-layer, and the Shell Layer. Let’s discuss these layers one by one:


* The Base Layer

The base layer is the piece of clothing that is nearest to your skin, and responsible for moisture management. This could be a t-shirt with short or long-sleeves. The most important thing to consider when choosing your base layer is to make sure the material is not cotton. Cotton is the hiker’s worst enemy because it absorbs moisture, making you hike in wet clothing. Cotton is like a sponge as it absorbs perspiration. If you’re hiking in cold temperatures, it could increase your risk for hypothermia. A wet base layer can also lead to infections if you have a skin condition, cuts, or any bacterial formation.

When you choose your base layer, it must be made of a material that wicks away moisture. In other words, the material must keep moisture away from your body. By wicking away moisture, like sweat, it keeps your body cool and dry, reducing the chances of hypothermia, and therefore, giving you comfort and safety from health hazards.

Some of the most ideal materials for your base layer are nylon, polypropylene blends, or Merino wool. It’s also important to consider the fit. A base layer that’s too tight may restrict movement, while a base layer that’s too loose may cause piling, leading to skin chaffing.

Your underwear can also be considered as your base layer. Cotton underwear is not ideal for hikes. They, too, absorb sweat, making you uncomfortable and they can be dangerous when worn in colder climates. Opt for spandex or nylon-based underwear that wicks sweat away from your body.


* The Mid Layer

The mid-layer is responsible for providing you with insulation, or heat retention. This layer of clothing must work to trap body heat close to your body. The thicker your mid-layer is, the more insulation you have. However, the thicker the mid-layer is, the heavier your clothing becomes, which is not ideal for long hikes. You must look for a mid-layer piece of clothing, such as a shirt or light jacket, that’s lightweight but also made of a material that provides excellent insulation or heat retention, depending on where you’re hiking and the season.

You can choose fleece-hooded jackets, vests, or pullovers, or down insulated jackets. Fleece is the best insulator and light in weight, cheap, and provides maximum warmth. However, it’s not water-resistant, which means it’s not great for winter. Choose the wrong kind of mid-layer and you will increase your risk for frostbite or hypothermia.

Just like in your choice of socks, merino wool is the most ideal fabric to use for the mid-layer. This is considered to be the superstar of fabrics for hiking as it’s a soft, natural fiber with breathability, offering comfort. It is also highly versatile, as it cools your body in warm temperatures, and warms your body in a cold climate. Merino wool is moisture-wicking and odor-resistant.

Other ideal materials for the mid-layer include polyester or nylon. These are cheaper options as well and are great for wicking moisture away, dries really fast, and keeps you adequately warm. They’re also durable and strong. However, these materials are not breathable and are not odor-resistant. They do tend to smell bad with sweat, and they can get really uncomfortable, sticky, and hot in warmer climates.


* The Shell Layer

As its name implies, the shell layer is the piece of outer clothing that protects you from the elements, such as rain and snow. Only two kinds of materials work best for the shell layer, which is water-resistant and waterproof materials.

The shell layer can take the form of an outer jacket, with the choice of material depending on the season. Waterproof jackets offer the most protection since they provide a complete barrier to water. This type of shell layer is ideal for locations that experience a lot of rain, as it will keep you dry. However, because waterproof jackets completely keep the elements away, they can cause heat to get trapped inside your body, which deems them inappropriate to wear during spring or summer, or when the weather is humid. In such cases, you will be wet inside, drenched from your own sweat.

To get the best of both worlds, you can opt for a waterproof jacket that’s breathable. Certain brands of waterproof jackets use a special material that’s both waterproof and breathable. If you’re planning on a tramping excursion when heavy rain is expected, a waterproof jacket and a poncho tarp may be recommended to provide you with maximum protection.

A water-resistant jacket, on the other hand, still offers protection from the elements but at a lower level than waterproof jackets. This is ideal for light activity, such as a half-day trek during fall or winter, or if the weather forecast states light and infrequent showers.

It must be noted that when choosing your shell layer, you must make sure that the jacket can be folded or packed easily. The weather in New Zealand can be unpredictable. You might set out on your journey with the sun shining, but end your day with heavy rain. Because of this, it is always recommended that you bring a shell layer for all of your New Zealand tramping activities, whether it’s summer, spring, fall, or winter.

Now that we’ve covered the basics and the 3-layer system for dressing for your hiking adventure in New Zealand, let’s discuss the key takeaways.

Here are the places you can park a campervan in New Zealand
Me wearing absolutely nothing


Key takeaways

  • Avoid cotton when hiking in New Zealand as cotton acts like a sponge and absorbs sweat, increasing your risk for hypothermia.
  • The weather in New Zealand is unpredictable, and hiking here can expose you to different weather conditions all in one day.
  • Use the 3-layer system of dressing for your hiking expedition in the country.
  • Bring hats and gloves, as a Kiwi tramper never leaves home without them, even in the summer.


The differences between the north and the south island

Though there is a general rule on how you should dress when hiking in the country, certain tips and recommendations are appropriate for different seasons and locations. But before we delve into what to wear for each season, let’s first discuss the major differences between the North Island and the South Island, so you know what to expect in terms of deciding what items to wear on your hike.


* The climate

As mentioned earlier, there are two main islands in the country, which are North Island and South Island. The climate in the country is complex and varied.

The North Island experiences a more warm subtropical climate, while the South Island has a cool temperate climate. The mountainous regions of New Zealand also experience alpine conditions. These varied weather conditions from North to South can make you confused about what to wear for your tramping expeditions on both islands. But to summarize, the North Island trails offer a warmer temperature while the South Island trails offer a cooler climate. In winter, while the North Island can experience temperatures that average between 10 to 16 degrees Celsius, the South can get as low as -10 degrees Celsius.


* The landscape

In terms of landscape, the North Island offers moon-like landscapes to coastal paths and alpine crossings. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, for example, is dubbed as one of the best day hikes in the world, where you can discover volcanic moonscapes and turquoise sulfur lakes on your trek. Because it is located in a mountainous region, you would need to wear the complete 3-layer system of dressing.

The Coromandel Coastal Walk, on the other hand, offers native forests, rugged coastlines, and beaches. While the Cape Brett Walkway features cliff-side paths and trails through native bush. For both of these walks, a base layer and a mid-layer are enough to keep you safe and protected. Some trampers can even just wear a base layer, such as a nylon top and a pair of quick-drying shorts with hiking boots.

For the South Island, more of its trails are well-maintained with spectacular scenery. Approach shoes would be appropriate, as many of the terrains are paved. The Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler walks are all inside the Fiordland National Park, with areas that feature waterfalls, valleys, wetlands, and rainforests. A base layer and a mid-layer are enough unless you hike through the more mountainous regions of South Island, where you will need a shell-layer jacket.


What to wear hiking in New Zealand per season

As we discussed earlier, New Zealand has four different seasons. With a temperate maritime climate, it never gets too hot or too cold in the country, making it perfect for hiking all-year-round. In fact, you can hike in the national parks, coastlines, and rainforest treks any day you wish, making the country the ultimate spot for one of the world’s best-hiking destinations.


* Summer

The summer season in New Zealand falls from December to February. It is the most idyllic time for hiking in the country, as these are the warmest months of the year. Temperatures average around 23 – 28 degrees Celsius, where the sun usually rises at 5:30 am and the sun setting at 10 pm. This gives you 16.5 hours of sunlight, which is perfect for multi-day hiking adventures.

You would need to wear a base layer such as a short-sleeve shirt, a pair of quick-drying shorts, a hat, and sunglasses. Leggings made of neoprene or polypropylene fabrics are also ideal for women.

Depending on your choice of location for your walk, you would also need to bring a mid-layer piece of clothing, such as a fleece jacket. You might likely only use it at night, so make sure you can fold it in your backpack. Stay away from wearing sleeveless shirts as this can expose you to the sun’s rays and cause sunburn, as well as expose you to insects and sharp plants along the tracks.


* Spring

The spring season in New Zealand is from September to November. The temperatures are mild and perfect for hiking. It is never too cold or too warm in Spring, and temperatures fall between 18 to 22 degrees Celsus.

A base layer may be enough for certain tracks, such as the coastal walks in the North Island, and some paved tracks in the Fiordland National Park in the South Island. However, if you’re doing a multi-day hike, it can get chilly at night, and in the early mornings. Bring a shell layer that you can easily pack, especially if you’re hiking in the South Island.


* Fall

The fall season in New Zealand is from March to May, and average temperatures fall between 18 to 23 degrees Celsius. It can get chilly and sunny during the daytime, and temperatures at night will drop. Wear light layers during the daytime, such as a nylon shirt and a light mid-layer jacket, while a shell layer made of merino wool is ideal to wear at night. Pants are also more ideal during the fall.


* Winter

The winter season in New Zealand is from June to August, and temperatures can vary between the North and South Island. While temperatures in the North Island can get to 10 to 16 degrees Celsius, they can go as low as -10 degrees in the South, especially in the alpine regions.

In winter, always bring a mountaintop jacket especially if you’re hiking on the South Island. Wear sturdy boots that offer traction and grip against slippery slopes, a wool beanie, and a wool glove.


The bottom line

If you find yourself planning a trip to New Zealand, hiking, or tramping, is one of your must-dos. There’s no better way to enjoy and experience the great landscapes that exist in this Oceanic nation. Hiking allows you to see the true beauty of New Zealand, as well as get closer to nature. But because the country’s climate and weather conditions vary and can be unpredictable, choosing the clothes to wear depends on many factors.

One of these factors is whether you’re hiking in the North or South Island, whether you’re hiking in the summer, spring, fall, or winter, and depending on the location of your hike as well. What you will wear in the summer to a bush walk must be different from what you wear to an alpine trek during the same season.

However, the general rule of the 3-layer system is key to making sure you are comfortable, safe, and protected during your New Zealand hikes. Choose a sturdy pair of hiking boots, a great pair of wool socks, and make use of the 3-layer system to tailor your clothes to the specific hiking adventure you wish to experience in the country.